Often one person is willing to speak up when everybody else may be wondering the same thing at a gathering but is afraid to ask. In today’s Gospel Thomas is the one who voices the doubts and fears with which others are also struggling. The Fourth Evangelist frequently uses one character as a representative figure. For example, Nicodemus represents all those whose learning stands in the way of their being able to come to the light and believe in Jesus (3:1-21). The man born blind (9:1-41) symbolizes all those who gradually come to full faith in Jesus. Thomas (as also in 11:16 and 14:5) stands for everyone who is a follower of Jesus yet harbors doubts.
In the first scene in today’s Gospel, the disciples are together, locked in their fear, when Jesus stands in their midst. His double declaration, “Peace be with you,” recalls his promise of peace that casts out fear (14:27). Jesus then shows the disciples his hands and side, the unerasable evidence of the brutality inflicted on him. Oddly enough, instead of increasing their terror, this gesture causes them to rejoice. The explanation is found in the Last Supper scene, where Jesus spoke to his disciples about his impending death, likening his pain and theirs to the labor pangs of a woman giving birth, whose agony turns to joy after the new life is brought forth. Jesus had assured them that when they would see him again, their hearts would rejoice with a joy no one could take from them (16:20-22).
Jesus then sends the disciples to continue the mission for which the Father sent him. In John’s Gospel there is no calling or sending of the Twelve; the mission is entrusted to all disciples empowered with the Spirit. As Jesus breathes on them, the new life brought forth through his death and resurrection vivifies them. The image is reminiscent of the creation of the first human being, into whose nostrils the Creator breathes the breath of life (Gn 2:7). It also calls to mind Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, over which he prophesies, “I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live” (Ez 37:5).
Just as God restored hope to the disheartened Babylonian exiles, so the risen Christ breathes peace and joy into the fearful disciples. Already at the moment of death, Jesus had “handed over the Spirit” (Jn 19:30). These are not two separate bestowals of the Spirit but two moments of the one “hour.” In the Fourth Gospel, the “hour” of the passion, death, resurrection, ascension, glorification and bestowal of the Spirit is all one movement, not separated in time as in Luke-Acts.
The power that the disciples receive with this infusion of the Spirit is the ability to heal and forgive. When Jesus shows his wounds, we see that forgiveness does not erase them, nor does it dismiss them as unimportant, yet telling the truth about them is essential for forgiveness and healing.
Jesus then speaks of “holding on” to every beloved one, just as he himself had done (10:28; 17:20; 18:9). The word “sins” is not found in the Greek text of v. 23b. Rather than an instruction to withhold forgiveness for some sins, the instruction is to “hold on” to each precious one, “binding up” the wounds. The language is similar to that of Ez 34:4 and 16, which describes God’s work as “binding up the injured.”
In the second scene, Thomas stands for all those who were not present in the initial experience with the resurrected Christ. Just as Mary Magdalene did, so the disciples declare, “We have seen the Lord” (20:17, 25). But belief on the basis of another’s word is not sufficient (see 4:42); one must have firsthand experience of Christ in order to participate in the mission. Jesus once again stands in their midst, bringing peace. He directs Thomas to probe the meaning of his wounds so that he, too, can become an agent of forgiveness and healing. When Thomas makes his acclamation of faith, Jesus affirms that there are two ways of blessedness: believing by having seen, and believing without having seen. The crucial thing is to believe, so as to have life.